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Duane Allman at 70: A Reflection

Alan Bryson By

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In fact, he got next to nothing from Duane Allman, and was merely tolerated by the band. He overheard a few of the musicians' conversations, observed their drug use, and in an entire week only managed to have a few exchanges with the band. From that vantage point he wrote a compelling narrative that conveys the monotony, banality, and exhausting nature of touring. You can actually imagine yourself sitting next to a member of the crew in this tangential reality, but he ignores the beauty of the art. Instead, he cattily focuses on the imperfections of the all too human vessels who were making it—and their crew. In a similar situation Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charlie Parker, or Miles Davis, would not have fared better.

To the outsider, the crew's and band's use of the title "brother" may have seemed worthy of ridicule. Actually, their extraordinary loyalty to each other set the original Allman Brothers Band apart from many other bands. That was due in large part to Duane Allman, who was by all accounts a natural leader. James Brown may have run a tight ship by fining his musicians and insisting they refer to him as Mr. Brown, but Duane Allman's band mates and crew would have followed him to the ends of the earth on an empty stomach without a paycheck—that is a rare thing. Again, Butch Trucks echoed this in his letter to the New York Times: "First, let me state unequivocally that Duane Allman was one of the most powerful, charismatic and trustworthy men I have ever known. I would use the word 'messianic' to describe the impact he had on the people around him..." The impact of his leadership was probably as important to the band as his guitar skills.

He had been a rebellious juvenile delinquent, but as the 60s unfolded he tuned-in, turned-on, dropped out, and devoted himself to music. He absorbed the Zeitgeist of the love generation, but still retained his rough edges, and remained a Southerner through and through. He was at home with hippies or bikers. Under his leadership, draft-dodgers in his band and hardened veterans in his crew developed a fierce loyalty to each other. These brothers of the road forged a bond as they scraped by at a subsistence level during their first year, and their group dynamic didn't change when they had a gold record. This closeness, loyalty, and mutual respect came through in their music. In a musical genre replete with giant egos, jealousy, and clashes, the original Allman Brothers Band and their crew were an exception.

Their album At Fillmore East was a perfect embodiment of what they were about. A simple black and white photo of the band sitting on their equipment cases in front of a brick wall, and on the back cover, the same photo, but this time of the crew holding their beer cans. The music was a pure reflection of what they were doing night after night. It was unintentional on Grover Lewis's part, but a perceptive reader can indeed uncover some insights about Duane Allman from his surly behavior toward Lewis, and the sparse quotes attributed to him. Duane was beginning to get more attention than the rest of the band as a result of his association with Eric Clapton, and Delaney & Bonnie, but he obviously did not want this to become a problem. On the contrary, when doing interviews he made a point of praising Dickey Betts. For example, this was the only thing he went out of his way to say to Grover Lewis: "Brother Dickey's as good as there is in the world, my man. And he's gonna be smokin' tonight. Listen to him on 'In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.'"

Reading the article you have to feel sorry for the photographer, Anne Leibovitz. Duane and Gregg turned her job into the assignment from hell. You can imagine that she had been given instructions to get some shots of the blonde brothers after whom the band was named. At one point their manager's assistant, Bucky Odum, tried to get Duane and Gregg to pose for her without the rest of the band. Both of them were furious at the suggestion, with Duane exclaiming (as quoted by Lewis), "Fuck man, we ain't on no fuckin' Star Trip!" In San Francisco, Duane refused to go to a studio for a shoot, and Gregg wouldn't allow a light bulb in a dressing room to be changed so she could have adequate light. The next day in Santa Barbara, Duane again refused to go to a shoot with the photographer, so she agreed to come back the next day. The next morning things got worse, Anne Leibovitz had learned that everyone in the band had the same mushroom tattoo on his calf, so she wanted them in a semi-circle with their calves exposed. Duane refused: "This is jive bullshit, man, it's silly!" Grover Lewis described what happened next: "At the fellow traveler's teasing suggestion that it's no sillier to shoot a picture of everyone's tattoo than it is to have them put on in the first place, Duane coldly offers to punch him on the spot." Butch Trucks recalled it like this: "This was the final straw for Duane. That was when he looked Grover Lewis in the eye and said, 'One more crack like that out of you and I'm gonna knock your block off.'" Later Leibovitz tried one final time to get a group shot, and Duane lost his temper again, "Fuck it, either take the fuckin' picture or don't take the fuckin' picture. I'm not gonna do any of that phony posin' shit for you or nobody else."

Grover Lewis's story focused on the boredom, the bedlam, the raunchy excess of the Allman Brothers touring experience. He described Duane Allman's disagreeable reaction to a star reporter and star photographer from Rolling Stone, but failed to registered how remarkable that actually was. Duane Allman left absolutely no doubt that he wasn't interested in stardom, fame, or being on the cover of Rolling Stone. So the obvious question should have been: why would someone put himself through such an ordeal day after day? Grover Lewis had the privilege of experiencing Duane Allman at the height of his career and musical development, so the answer to that question should have been obvious. His life revolved around the rush, the exuberance, and the magic of making music. The closed-eyed, open-mouthed, transfixed Duane Allman connecting with receptive spirits and feeding off their energy—that was Duane Allman hittin' the note. How could someone have witnessed him night after night at that point in time, and felt the need to ask what hittin' the note means? Interestingly, he asked everyone in the band that lame question except Duane Allman.

Contrary to his own assessment, he indeed missed the story, and despite his considerable literary gifts he failed to convey anything about Duane Allman's musicianship and musicality. In the last paragraph of his article, despite his vengeful slant, he finally shared a brief glimpse of what he had been privileged to witness: "When the band's set gets underway downstairs, the usually-comatose Strip yells its lusty approval from the first chorus of 'Statesboro Blues.' By the time Dicky[sic] Betts thunderballs into his solo jam on 'Elisabeth Reed,' people are standing on their chairs, yodeling cheers. As the band jam-drives to a sexy and demonic close, sounding not unlike tight early Coltrane, a flaxen-haired waitress is passing out draughts of beer to the screaming patrons in the second-story gallery. The beer is streaming amber and glistening down her bare arms, and the Allman Brothers Band from Macon, Gawgia, is—what else—Hitting the Note."

Serious Duane Allman fans have probably felt the heartbreaking sense of loss that comes from the realization that he was still growing as a musician at the time of his death. Even Gregg Allman had noticed the phenomenon of his continuing musical growth. As an adult he had only been separated once from his brother for a significant period of time, when he returned to Los Angeles to fulfill contractual obligations. When he came to Jacksonville to join the band at Duane's urging, he had been amazed by how his brother's playing had developed. Even comparing Duane's playing from the clear audio of the Atlanta International Pop Festival in July of 1970 to the At Fillmore East concerts recorded in March of 1971, you are struck by the unmistakable development in just nine months. This progress continued during the final eight month of his life, and thanks to our Internet age you can actually follow this development on audience recordings—although the audio quality is sometimes quite meager. That's not to imply that every show was a gem. He had substance abuse problems, and although he kicked opiates shortly before he died, he had replaced them with cocaine. So Duane Allman wasn't always in top form.

Fortunately, after the band's famous live album, two more concerts were professionally recorded which capture his development on very good nights. There was the final concert at the Fillmore on June 27, 1971 when the Allman Brothers took the stage in the middle of the night and left at sunrise. It's an excellent recording, although the sleep deprived audience is understandably zapped of energy. (At one point Duane remarked how quiet the crowd was, and wondered aloud if they were too high.) The other treasure from the final months of Duane Allman life is the recording of the A&R Studios concert broadcast on WPLJ-FM in NYC on August 26, 1971. For the broadcast they packed about 200 people into the studio. Duane mentions during the concert that they are having trouble hearing themselves, but the band is on fire, the audio quality is quite good, and in contrast to the last Fillmore concert, the small crowd's energy is high.

When Duane Allman died on October 29th of 1971, he and the band were on the verge of stardom, but still not there. Despite a gold album, they were an insider tip compared to bands like Santana and Ten Years After. By this time I was going to college out West, and I remember turning people on to the Allman Brothers Band during the autumn of 1971 and early 1972. As a matter of fact, in Europe, where I've spent most of my adult life, they have always been an insider tip—although they have an extremely dedicated fan base here. National fame did come fairly quickly to Duane Allman and his band after his death. Willie Perkins, the band's tour manager, told Grover Lewis they were averaging $7500 a gig in October of 1971. In Cameron Crowe's, December 6, 1973 cover story about the Allman Brothers Band in Rolling Stone, he reported that during the previous six months they had averaged between $50,000 and $100,000 per night, and now their albums were routinely going gold—fame had indeed arrived.
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